The saying among trial lawyers is that it does not matter how much an expert witness knows if he/she cannot explain it to a jury in a way they can understand.
Geoscientist and geologist expert witness Robin Franks explains.
Q. Ms. Franks, why is it so difficult for some expert witnesses to make their testimony understandable?
Some forget to use “plain English”; they overuse acronyms, throw out uncommon vocabulary and lapse into “professor-like” speech giving. The message must be clear and concise, delivered with confidence, relatable (best) but technical enough to convey key points. I have seen a jury become frustrated, aggravated and (worse) feel that they were “talked down to”. The more natural and likeable the expert when explaining key concepts the more likely the witness will be listened to trusted and understood. If the witness is not prepared enough to articulate his/her opinion within the context of three key points, combine the points with a familiar “mental hook” and repeat them with predictable ease, the witness runs the risk of being poorly understood, poorly liked and his/her message lost.
Q. How can experts explain complex science to juries without coming off as condescending?
The best scientific witness is an effective “story teller” who comes across genuine. Being unprepared, verbose and overly technical gives the appearance of arrogance. We need to be knowledgeable as well as approachable; like the kind person on the street that would be sought after for reliable directions. To do this, the expert must not only be prepared but convey an air of earned respectability; like the best teacher you had in high school. When explaining complex science, we need to be as inclusive of the art teacher as we are of the science teacher. Use of demonstratives and comparative analogies to relate universally across the panel is also helpful. Being careful to “explain down the middle” (with the right amount of detail) is better than including too much.
Q. How can experts best use demonstrative evidence to explain complex science to jurors?
The effective expert will use tangible and universally relatable demonstratives (the more complex the point the more visually appealing yet simple it should be). Well presented demonstratives are the theater for acting out the expert’s opinion; it helps us to minimize the risk of science “overload” and acts as a conduit for well crafted story telling. I enjoy using visually appealing and relatable demonstratives to explain science by incorporating every day things like cooking, shopping, gardening, etc.; because they give the jury a relatable foundation upon which the expert constructs his/her three main points.
Q. How should experts work with retaining counsel and others to make sure their testimony will be understandable?
Practice prior to trial; use demonstratives so that you know them “cold” and so that your 3 key points are made and understood without exception. I like to involve my unsuspecting family, office manager, and administrative staff; it helps me ensure that I have practiced with as broad a cross-section of education and scientific interest as possible. After which, I ask my mock audience questions about how the demonstratives worked, how they can be improved and I ask for my 3 key points to be repeated. I also ask for critical review of my tone of voice, body language and believability. It is also helpful to video the process, watch the video back and work on fine tuning the “presentation” so that it flows more naturally and has the appearance of being less “staged”.
Ms. Franks will be speaking at the SEAK National Expert Witness Conference to be held on May 3-4, 2014 in Orlando, FL.
Making the Complex Understandable: What Works for Expert Witnesses
Robin Franks PG, CHMM
Ms. Franks will discuss how to translate and explain complex scientific concepts, principles, and results in a fashion that can be readily understood by a judge, fact finder, and jury. She will demonstrate how an effective technical expert witness can make juries and judges feel comfortable with the understanding of complex evidentiary material. Ms. Franks will demonstrate, by use of examples, how all experts can work with retaining counsel to offer coherent, understandable, expert testimony even in the most complex and difficult cases.
Robin Franks PG, CHMM is President and founder of TGE Resources, Inc. and an experienced expert witness and consultant. She is a professional geoscientist, geologist, biologist and Certified Hazardous Materials Manager.. Ms. Franks’ specialties include real property assessment, characterization, clean-up, and case “closure” in the commercial, industrial, oil and gas, and healthcare industries. Her experience encompasses over 25 years of industrial compliance auditing, clean-up of up and down-stream affected oil & gas property, bulk and fuel storage tank remediation, urban core “Brownfield” redevelopment projects, asbestos consulting, lead-based paint management, and industrial hygiene/indoor environmental quality consulting including mold/fungus and bioaerosol assessment, testing, and remediation consulting. Ms. Franks offers expertise in litigation support and client representation within a wide array of environmental matters. She has served as the firm’s senior technical Principal in more than 35 “merger/acquisition” projects encompassing over 2000 sites nationwide; and thousands of real property investigations, many of which have involved complex clean-up strategies as well as comprehensive “risk-based” case management in negotiated coordination with various regulatory agencies within Texas and throughout the United States.